New Zealand’s Opera’s version of Tosca produces the right level of villainy and melodrama

New Zealand Opera's Tosca is more than extraordinarily gripping theatre, marking the huge advances made since the company last presented the opera in 2003.

Back then, the production was borrowed from Scottish Opera, and casting was, to put it mildly, problematic.

An exceptionally strong trio of principals provides a solid anchor for Stuart Maunder's engrossing homegrown production.

You will be spellbound from Puccini's dramatic opening chords, delivered by a magnificent Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, under a conductor, Tobias Ringborg, who knows how to make this music bloom.

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James Clayton's harrowing portrayal of the fugitive Angelotti is balanced by Barry Mora's seasoned Sacristan, as we prepare to meet the two lovers.

Orla Boylan and Simon O'Neill, as Tosca and Cavaradossi, enjoy their amatory cat-and-mouse game. Small details impress, from O'Neill's roving but tactful hand to the stylish hat that Elizabeth Whiting has supplied for opera's ultimate diva.

Musical raptures flow, from O'Neill pondering the unpredictability of beauty, to Boylan conjuring up domestic happiness never to be.

As Scarpia, Phillip Rhodes has just the right power and charisma to catch the character's unredeemed villainy.

Far from the wigged and corpulent old lecher you might have had, decades ago, in a period production, the New Zealand baritone is lean and sexy, a Mafioso wolf prowling for prey in Maunder's post-Mussolini Italy.

Rhodes' voice soars above the strong-voiced chorus in Act I's Te Deum, and yet he can be snake-like and subtle, laying out his personal credo of evil.

The range of chairs around Scarpia's table reveals that set designer Jan Ubels sees it as an interrogator's desk rather than dinner table. And throughout this act, Jason Morphett's lighting makes much of echoing shadows, especially when Scarpia's looms over Tosca after Boylan's transcendent Vissi d'arte.

Praise, too, for Maunder's sharp treatment of Scarpia's thuggish henchmen, whose heft would have been appreciated in the hall, preventing late-comers from trickling in during the first 10 minutes or so.

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James Benjamin Rodgers' Spoletta takes to evil with an almost Sadeian glee, happily dispensing the crucial bullet himself in the third act; Wade Kernot makes the most of the terse Sciarrone.

The final ironic act brings back more heavenly duetting between the lovers. O'Neill is in glorious form for E lucevan and Boylan takes terror well beyond melodrama, culminating in one of the most spectacular leaps this side of an Olympic diving board.

Not to be missed.

Performance

What:

Tosca

Where:

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Aotea Centre

When:

Thursday, to Spetember 27